A house is in the process of being built on the empty lot across the street from us, and a recent delivery of lumber to the site caught my attention. The huge pile of two by fours is hard to miss, but that wasn’t what made me take notice. As I stepped out of my front door to take my doxies on our morning walk, it was the smell that got me. And as we physically walked down our street, I mentally wandered down the street of my childhood.
“We’re meeting at the lumber yard,” one of my friends would call from his bike as he whizzed past my house. I’d jump on my bike and pedal my heart out, trying to catch up with the kids meeting at the end of Water Street. We’d lay our bikes down in the weeds and climb the small incline to the old railroad tracks. Kicking at stones and poking at rotting railroad ties, we’d walk until we reached the creek and then spend some time looking for crayfish. If you had asked me before yesterday if I had any memories related to the smell of lumber, I would have said no – and thought you were a weirdo – but one whiff of that pile of wood was all it took to bring back a summer full of memories.
I was already aware that scents and memories can be related, but I didn’t realize that a smell can often be a trigger for memories. According to Wikipedia, the term ‘olfactory memory’ refers to the recollection of odors. And an article on curiosity.com postulates that things you see, touch, hear and taste travel to your brain by way of your thalamus. The thalamus then sends the information to the relevant brain areas. Scents bypass the thalamus and go directly to the brain’s smell center. This could explain why smells so immediately trigger a reaction in people.
Okay, sorry. That was boring even to me. Apparently I’m not interested in the science behind why this happens. I’m just fascinated by how and when it happens. And in my experience, it can work the other way, with memories reminding me of a scent. When I listen to oldies and think about being a kid with teenage sisters, I can almost smell the Dippity Do hair gel and Jergens lotion like it’s in the same room with me.
MOH is very fragrance conscious. He likes to accompany me to Bath & Body Works when I need to make a run for candles or wallflowers. Both MOH and our son like the yummy smells: Warm Vanilla Sugar, Pumpkin Pecan Waffles, and Cinnamon Stick are favorites. Unfortunately, there is an unintended consequence to making these choices. I was burning a candle one Sunday afternoon while I lounged in my favorite chair reading a book. MOH wandered up from the family room. “Smells great,” he said while walking toward the kitchen. “What did you make?” The answer. Nothing.
My nieces like to stock up on their favorite B&BW candles. I used to stock up too, worrying about my favorite scents being retired. But a word of caution – too much of a good thing can dilute the effect. There was a particular wallflower that my mom liked and she used it often when she moved to an assisted living facility. All the nurses and aides would comment on the pleasant aroma and say they liked visiting her room. That fragrance became a comforting backdrop to many afternoons with my mom, reminiscing and listening to music. After she passed away, I stocked up and put one in our family room, the bathroom, and my office at work. Soon, my nose ‘shut-off’ to the ever present smell and it wasn’t special anymore. I still like the scent, but it doesn’t only remind me of mom anymore, because those times together are no longer the only time it was present.
I sign off with thoughts of a few of my favorite aromas, and their triggers, swirling around in my head. A warm Italian kitchen, heavy with the scent of sweet basil and garlic – might be spaghetti, lasagna, manicotti, gnocchi or all of the above. Puppy breath, Windsong perfume, spring hyacinths, brownies baking, freshly shampooed hair. And Nicola’s Books (my favorite independent bookstore) and Barry’s Bagels. They are next door to each other. The smell of everything bagels makes me think of the books, and the books make me think of everything bagels. Ahhhhhh.